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Federal charges blocked local questioning of sniper suspects

by Stephen Manning, Associated Press, 30 October 2002


ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) _ Questioning of the two Washington sniper suspects by task force investigators was halted when federal agents took custody of the pair, possibly preventing investigators from obtaining information about the shooting spree, a local law enforcement source said Wednesday.

John Lee Malvo, 17, and John Allen Muhammad, 41, were arrested by the multi-agency sniper task force about 3:19 a.m. Oct. 24 at a Myersville highway rest stop.

Later that day, after several phone calls from Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, the two were placed in federal custody, Muhammad on weapons charges and Malvo as a material witness, the local law enforcement official said.

Task force officials complained that ended potentially valuable interrogations, the source said.

"He was talking," the law enforcement source said of Muhammad. "There was certainly a great deal of information that remained to be gleaned from him."

DiBiagio told task force investigators that he had orders from the White House and Department of Justice to take the suspects and local authorities tried to dissuade him, without success, the source said.

"There was a variety of people imploring DiBiagio to use common sense. When you first bring a defendant in, that is usually the one shot you have to figure out the motive and get a confession," the local law enforcement source said.

However, Muhammad and Malvo did not give any indication they were prepared to confess, the source said.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pair were providing little information to interrogators after their arrest and both invoked their right not to speak without a lawyer present.

Malvo would not even admit he was in the car with Muhammad when the two were arrested, saying only things like "I'm hungry" or "Leave me alone so I can get something to eat," the Justice Department source said.

DiBiagio's office did not immediately return telephone calls by The Associated Press on Wednesday seeking comment.

The interrogation account, first reported in Wednesday's editions of the New York Times, illustrates the stiff competition between federal and local authorities over who will prosecute Muhammad and Malvo first.

Muhammad was charged in federal court Tuesday with extortion, discharging a firearm and blocking interstate commerce. The crimes, being prosecuted under the federal Hobbs Act, carry a possible death sentence.

Local prosecutors in Maryland and Virginia have also filed murder charges against both. Authorities in Alabama have charged them with a slaying last month and the two are suspects in a Washington state killing earlier this year.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said negotiations continue on which jurisdiction will try the case first.

Federal agents and Montgomery County detectives had been questioning Muhammad and Malvo for roughly an hour late in the morning Oct. 24 when DiBiagio called, the law enforcement source said.

The Times reported DiBiagio called a second time around 1 p.m., and had a conference call with Montgomery County prosecutors, who wanted to continue the investigation. DiBiagio said he was only working on orders and the suspects were transferred to federal custody about 3 p.m., the newspaper reported.

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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